Meet Mr. Mapper

Our guide for the trek on the Ho Chi Minh Trail is known as the “Midnight Mapper.” I don’t where the “Midnight” part of his “handle” came from, but he has been mapping the Ho Chi Minh Trail (and the rest of Laos) for many years. He probably knows more about The Trail than any human alive… probably more than the NVA and Pathet Lao who ran the place from the late 1950s till the mid-1970s.

Bombs now inert
Duds made inert. UXOs are found all over Laos.

A few years ago, I made the trip back to Southeast Asia. My planning then included riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At the time, I thought to myself, “Why do I need a guide?… I’m a big boy… I’ve ridden a motorcycle all over Western Europe by myself…. and I’ve got all the right toys (Garmin GPS & SPOT Satellite device.)” I bought a Laos map from the Midnight Mapper for my Garmin, and it showed the Trail with all the places to go.

I figured if I planned carefully, I could go on my own, go where I wanted to, and do it at my own pace. I could rent a CRF250L in Vientiane for much less than doing it with a guide. I gathered up everything I could possibly need and headed out. The plan was for three weeks riding all over Thailand and another three weeks in Laos.

I was even prepared to even walk out of the jungle if necessary. There was no one to call to bring in a Jolly Green if I had a problem. I had to carry a ton of extra stuff for that contingency… tools, spare tire tubes, water purifier, hammock & mosquito net, MREs for several days, and much more. More than half of the stuff with me was for the HCMT contingency.

Well… the first half went pretty well. After all, I spoke enough Thai to get by. You know… “sawadee,” “cow pot,” “kop kun mak.” And let’s not forget bi-leo (go fast) and Singha.

Then… somewhere in the middle of nowhere Thailand, I came upon a police roadblock. I have no idea why it was there, nor understood anything the policeman said. I just handed the policeman every bit of paperwork I had. My butt puckered up. I prayed I wouldn’t end up in a Thai jail for something I couldn’t understand. Then it hit me… this is Thailand. What would happen in Laos?!!! Alone!!! Camping in the jungle… ALONE!

It turned out something else caused me to cut my trip short at the end of the Thailand loop. Even though I badly wanted to go to Laos, I was relieved I would not be taking such a risk. By the way… I’m sure the CRF250L I rented in Thailand still has a big cone poking up in the middle of the seat cover.

So, that brings us to Mr. Mapper.

Don Duval
The Midnight Mapper – Don Duval

Mr. Mapper’s real name is Don Duval. Don lives in Vientiane, Laos and has lived there for quite some time. Amongst his many talents, you can list “movie star,” “movie producer,” and “tough guy.” No, he’s not a “tough guy” as in a syndicate crime boss. Rather, he’s more like a Timex watch… he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

OK… you’ll have to watch the movie, “Blood Road,” to see what I’m talking about. Click to see the “Blood Road trailer.” (Opens in a new window) The movie is available on Amazon (included in Prime), iTunes and others.

Don knows all the ins-n-outs of Lao custom and language. Imagine if you broke down by yourself in the middle of nowhere, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. However, when Don takes a group, he brings along a support vehicle with spare stuff and sometimes a spare bike. The support vehicle means we only need to carry minimal stuff with us on the bikes. Bags, etc…. in the truck.

Support Truck and Bikes
Support truck and bikes.

There’s lots more to going with Don. He knows where to eat, where to sleep and probably most important, where not to go. You can’t just go to some places I hope to go to like LS-20A (Alternate). I think Don knows all the tricks to get into and out of places like that… or at least when not to go.

I should also add… Don’s organization is a licensed tour company. He organizes hotels, guest houses and anything else we might need along the way.

To me, it’s a “no brainer” to go with Don as the guide. If you want to do a Laos “Trail” ride but can’t make this one, Don can probably help you out. For more information, he has two websites you can go to: www.laosgpsmap.com and www.hochiminhtrail.org. (There’s a ton of useful information and killer pics on the laosgpsmap web.).

Places to go – Lima Sites

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be making on the places I hope to go during the Ho Chi Minh Trail ride. I sorta didn’t know which place to start with. There are so many interesting and now historic places. I know we won’t get to all of them in a reasonable number of days. So I decided to start with places that aren’t even on the HCMT… Lima Sites. I know… that doesn’t make sense. But I chose this because the Lima Sites were an integral part of the “Secret War” in Laos.

But before I can talk about the most interesting individual sites, I need to give a little background on how the Lima Sites came about. There are a zillion books, CHECO reports, and articles written about this. And… the history of Laos in the ‘50s, ‘60s is so complex and convoluted that to really understand it takes all those books, etc. Not to worry… I’ll try to do it in around 500 words or so.

Laos has been in turmoil since almost forever. The colonial French added the “s” on the end of Lao (to make Lao plural) when they combined three “kingdoms” in 1893. It never worked out. Fast forward to 1954 when Vietnam defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Accords that followed set the stage separating Vietnam into two different countries.

The accords also called for all foreign forces to withdraw. Following the accords, the French essentially pulled out, leaving the US to begin dealing with the region. I should note that there was a separate agreement establishing the Kingdom of Laos. I should also note that the withdrawal of foreign forces allowed the Pathet Lao to gain a foothold in the North of Laos. I should also note that North Vietnam never abided by the agreement to remove forces. Lastly, I need to note that the US was not a signatory to the accords, but made a gentleman’s agreement to go along.

For the next few years, turmoil bubbled in Laos. All the events are too convoluted to describe here. Suffice to say that by 1959 civil war broke out between the Pathet Lao (supported by North Vietnam) and the Royal Laotian Government (RLG). At the time there was only minor sporadic fighting and skirmishes, but it established sides for the coming years of war.

(As a personal side note, the “conflict” in Laos made enough of the “nightly news” in 1959 that I did a report on it for my 7th grade Government class.)

(Pewwww… I’ve already used half of my 500 words. Maybe I should make it 750)

As he was leaving office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told the new President, John F. Kennedy, that Laos would be the key to Indochina. Between ’59 and ’62, the civil war bubbled up and down. The US sided with the RLG and financed a series of “public works” and “civic actions” to help prop up the government in the eyes of the people. During this time, the US also supported and financed 100% of the RLG military.

About this time, the US began supporting and arming General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrilla army. I’ll have more to say about Vang Pao (often referred to as “VP”) in future posts. For now, I just want to say that VP and his Hmong warriors were the most fierce fighters and best allies the US had during the war.

All over Laos, the US created what became known as “Lima Sites.” These were little landing strips… some not more than a wide spot on a mountainside dirt road. Some were bigger, and some were bare spots of dirt where only a helicopter could land. These were used by the CIA, Air America, and the US Military.

Initially, they were to support USAID to Laos helping support the “Neutral Royal Laotian Government (RLG) with public works projects… flying chickens and rice to the local regions. By the early 60s, the support became military support for the Royal Laotian Army (RLA) and Royal Laotian Air Force (RLAF). Depending on who is counting, there were over 200 Lima Sites.

As the US involvement grew, these sites gained increasing importance to the overall effort in Indochina. Besides flying chickens and rice, the Lima Sites were used as bases for the RLA, VP’s forces, and to fly military support (troops, arms & ammunition) where needed. Throughout the war, battles raged between RLG forces and the NVA/Pathet Lao for control of the Lima Sites and the regions all around the Plain of Jars.

Pewwww… I barely exceeded my self-imposed word count. In the next posts, I’ll tell you about three of the Lima Sites we might visit as well as the Plane of Jars.

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Next up… LS-36 – The Alamo

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Why the Ho Chi Minh Trail?

In my last posting, I asked, “Why the Ho Chi Minh Trail?”… then promptly answered, “If you have to ask, then this isn’t for you.”

However, a good question is, why do I want to do this? Well… it started a few years ago when I wrote two books: “Memories of Naked Fanny,” and “More Memories of Naked Fanny.” For those that don’t know, “Naked Fanny” is a nickname GIs gave a US Air Base in the Second Indochina War.* The official name was “Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base.” (Also known as NKP) But, it was really a US base launching air strikes against the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

I was at “Naked Fanny” from 1968 to 1969. I knew at the time (’68-’69) we were dropping tons of bombs on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I was right in the middle of it by loading bombs on the wings & bomb-bays of airplanes and sending them off. When the planes came back, the wings and bomb-bays were empty.

I wrote both books to chronicle my memories and the memories others who were there. As I researched for the books, I learned the names of places I didn’t know before. Names like, the Mu Gia Pass, Ban Phanop, the Ban Loboy Ford, Harley’s Valley (which I have renamed the Guillet – Harley Valley), and Tchepone (Xepon).

I learned about “Lima Sites” like LS20A (also known as, “Alternate”), LS85, and LS36 (“The Alamo”). I learned part of the war effort was supporting the Royal Laotian Army. The war raged in an area referred to as Barrel Roll… in and around an area the French named the “Plaine des Jarres (Plain of Jars)… or just PDJ as American pilots called it.

I learned about places I still can’t pronounce. Places where friends and strangers were shot down on their missions… where rescues and heroism beyond imagination prevailed… and where some of those friends and strangers died.

I decided that rather than just reading about the places, I had to go there and see for myself. So…this “Trail Ride” is about going to see those places, on the ground, first hand.

 

* Americans call it the “Vietnam War,” but it was much more than that. The war included the “Secret War” in Laos. It also included Cambodia and even some insurgency in Thailand. Much of the world calls it the Second Indochina War, and I use that because it is much more correct than just calling it the Vietnam War.

Welcome to the Ho Chi Minh Trail Ride

This is an opportunity to go on a trail ride most people only dream of. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting information on an adventure to explore the Ho Chi Minh Trail for yourself.

This adventure is not for everyone. We will spend days… weeks riding dual purpose (on/off road) motorcycles on the trails through remote parts of Laos. No air-conditioned cars,  no luxury hotels… we may even be camping out on the trail. But for three… four… or maybe five people and me, this may be the adventure like none before.

Ho Chi Minh Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail leading away from the Mu Gia Pass. (Photo Courtesy of Don Duval… AKA the Midnight Mapper)

Why the Ho Chi Minh Trail?
Well… if you have to ask, then this probably isn’t for you. But if “The Trail” has been an indelible part of your memory for a long time… if you supported the operations there… or if you just want to know and see the pieces of history you still find there, then this adventure may be for you.

Stay tuned for updates.